‘I confess.’ This is seemingly a straightforward statement, but as soon as it has any content at all, it becomes charged with difficulty. What might be the content of a confession; and what ought it to contain if it is to constitute ‘confession’ rather than just ‘statement’: is there a difference between ‘I stole the ribbon’ as a statement, and ‘I stole the ribbon’ in the mode of confession? Clearly, yes; and what makes the difference is the context and the accusatory demand, expressed or tacit, for confession rather than statement. Guilt, anguish and responsibility all immediately enter the frame. Further, the context is one that immediately places the confessing subject in a relation to others, to an audience of sorts for the confessional act. It thus becomes intrinsically a social act of some kind. And who might be the subject of the confession? When I say I stole the ribbon, is the confessing and speaking I to be identified with the I who committed the action, the I who is now rather displaced and distanced from the speaker?
These kinds of question lie at the heart of this inquiry. Out of a simple questioning came a complexity of issues ranging from matters of narrative to memory, from authenticity to sociability, from hearing to testimony, from evidence to authority. Such questions are potentially enormous; but they are held together and controlled here by the presiding demand to engage with ideas of a transparent culture and a culture that sees a prerogative for expression – free expression – of the self. The nexus of these things is a problem concerning modernity and its political formation as democracy. If the book has a purpose beyond the matters of literary critique, it is as a contribution to our possibilities for living together in democratic organization. That, too, turns out to be extremely difficult to achieve; but it would be good if a society could ever manage to try it out, and this book is an urging towards such an essay.
Parts of it have been tried out, across a number of years, before many audiences and individuals. I want to thank colleagues in the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Rosario, Utrecht, Dublin, Harvard, Sheffield Hallam and Leeds. From all of these, I have gained enormously; and to colleagues and students in these institutions, as also in the institutions where I have taught, I confess my indebtedness.